Empire Magazine
January 2000
by Simon Braund
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Headless horsemen. Frightening forests. Haunted hamlets. Get ready for the first seriously scary movie of the new millennium, as Johnny Depp and Tim Burton take on the terrifying legend of Sleepy Hollow. On set with the spooks: Simon Braund.

After trekking up the muddiest forest track in the entire history of mud (and, no doubt, tracks), Empire finally crests a densely wooded hill to be met with an arresting and slightly unsettling sight: occupying a clearing in the trees some 300 metres below is a tiny, perfectly formed 18th century village which appears to be under attack from alien spacecraft. Hovering above the spiky church, ramshackle half-timbered cottages and suspiciously bijou bridge is a collection of vast, incandescent slabs which are bathing the settlement below in a pale and unearthly light. It looks like the type of tableau you might find gracing the interior of an enormously expensive snow globe.

What is also rather eerie is that earlier in the day Empire inspected exactly the same scene, complete with glowing monoliths, meticulously rendered in miniature in a model shop at Leavesden Studios. And to add a further prickle of unease, as we set off down the mercifully less soggy path that leads to the cluster of buildings below, it occurs to us that this is precisely how New York constable Ichabod Crane first enters the Hudson Valley hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a serious of grisly murders. And it’s here that he first encounters the local legend of the headless horseman.

There’s no cause for alarm, of course. The village is hardly more substantial than the cranially-challenged equestrian spook who haunts it. It is, in fact, the setting for director Tim Burton’s cinematic retelling of the Washington Irving classic, The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow; the menacing illuminated blocks overhead are a vast lighting rig designed to provide the requisite ethereal hue during night shoots. And even from a distance, it’s obvious that the set is vintage Burton. Based initially on early Dutch settlements in upstate New York—where the real town of Sleepy Hollow is located—its ostensible quaintness is undermined by a hint of stylized gothic: the houses are slightly too tall and slightly too thin, and they crowd together almost too tightly. It’s an artful, almost comical corruption of coziness—this is a community huddling together in fear of the spectre which stalks the dark woods that surround it.

Irving’s much-loved supernatural yarn (renamed Sleepy Hollow for the screen) is perfect material for Burton. Set in 1799, it’s a dream-like mix of horror, fantasy and romance that tells the tale of awkward loner Ichabod Crane—a schoolteacher in the book, a policeman in the film—who is sent to Sleepy Hollow after several of its inhabitants have been mysteriously decapitated by, he soon learns, the monstrous figure of a headless black rider. “Ichabod is someone who is basically behind the times and ahead of the times,” says Burton, “and it’s the contradictory aspects of his character which are always fun and interesting. One of the original images that I had in my mind is a character who lives in his head versus a character with no head, which I always thought was a wonderful symbol.” While pitting his expertise in forensics against the terrifying horseman, Ichabod also manages to fall in love with Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of the town’s most eminent family. Thus the stage is set for a perfectly Burtonesque fairy tale, and the eccentric director has assembled something of a dream team to flesh out his typically phantasmagorical vision: Johnny Depp—in a piece of casting that was surely engineered by God—plays Ichabod; Christina Ricci is similarly blessed with the role of Katrina; Casper Van Dien plays Ichabod’s brutish love rival and, providing icing on an already tantalizing cake, is the eminently strange Christopher Walken as the horseman. And in a nod to Burton’s beloved Hammer Horrors, the great Christopher Lee makes a cameo appearance as the New York burgermeister who orders Ichabod to Sleepy Hollow. And just to whet your, no doubt by now, keenly honed appetites even further, the screenplay comes courtesy of Seven’s Andrew Kevin Walker, music is by long-time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, and, hot off his movie-stealing turn as Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, Ray Park stands in as Walken’s double for the right scenes. That alone should lead you to suspect plenty of blood and thunder alongside the misty romance.

The last time Empire encountered Johnny Depp was when he sauntered onto the terrace of the Hotel Du Cap at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Sporting a superbly unusual suit and smoking a cheroot, his perfect features adorned by a moustache roughly as wide as the crack in a coffee mug, he was every in the movie star, captured in his natural habitat. Now, seated at a rough trestle table in an arctic catering tent as night-time rain pounds the canvas roof, he is dressed in a flowing white shirt, ample of cuff, and an embroidered full-length waistcoat. The pencil-thin stogie has been replaced by liquorice roll-ups and his facial hair is of a less raffish goatee. He looks tiny, unreal, like a Dresden figurine come to life. Seated next to him, Christina Ricci appears even more as if she has wafted in from some enchanted waking vision. Her saucer-eyed, elfin features are framed by her lustrous blond hair. They are a mesmerizing apparition.

Following Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow marks Depp’s third collaboration with Burton, and for him this reunion is definitely a Good Thing. “Going back to working with Tim for me is like recharging the batteries,” he says, directing his whispery drawl towards his feet. “I can go out and do other things and I start to question why I do them and what the point of certain things is, so coming back to Tim is a rejuvenating experience. It makes me understand why I do this and what it’s all about.” But this being Johnny Depp, aman whose predilection for all things off-the-wall is legendary, other incentives were of course involved.

“I love the story,” he says, simply. “I’ve been familiar with it since I was a little kid—it’s just one of those great American stories. And I think the character is very interesting. It’s a challenge to play someone who fills the role of the leading man, but to not play him as a standard hero.”

In that respect, Ichabod is a character very much in keeping with many others in the Depp canon, particularly those he has played for Burton. Edward Scissorhands has the most obvious parallels, but even the delusional-yet-lovable Ed Wood provides plenty of evidence of Depp’s predilection for society’s waifs and strays.

“Yeah, Ichabod’s a freak,” he chuckles. “He’s very much an outsider. He’s definitely got his problems, his weird ticks, stuff like that.” And Depp is perfectly frank about why he is constantly drawn to endearing weirdos. “I’m an idiot,” he says, smiling. “No, I don’t know . . . It’s like, yeah, there are a lot of characters I’ve played who seem to be related in some way. It’s kind of like a painting in a way; like something that you’re trying to achieve, something that you’re trying to say that’s never quite finished. I don’t know if a painter ever really finishes a painting. Maybe that’s what it is with me—I’m exploring this arena and I haven’t finished exploring it yet.”

In creating Ichabod Crane, Depp drew on a rich, if slightly perplexing, store of influences. There’s a great deal of Roddy McDowell in it (the late actor was a close friend of Depp’s), but, he alleges, he also pilfered freely from the classic Basil Rathbone/ Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films. Not surprisingly, he was also persuaded to take in a few Hammer Horrors to get him in the mood.

“Yeah. Did you watch any of those?” he says to Ricci. She shakes her head. “No, you said you were going to give me some but you never did.”

“I lied,” he says. “I lied to Christina. I said I’d give her some films and I lied. I was familiar with some of them just from being a horror fan in general. Tim gave me a couple of Hammer tapes initially and we talked about the style. What I find fascinating about them is that there’s a style of acting that’s borderline bad, but it’s so borderline that it’s actually brilliant. I find that very interesting. I think Peter Cushing was a master craftsman, and Christopher Lee definitely is, and it’s a style of acting that I find very interesting.”

Sleepy Hollow is the second film that Depp has made with Christina Ricci—she had a small role in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—and it’s another re-match that he seems inordinately happy about.

“When Tim brought it up that he was casting Christina as Katrina I was very excited about going to work with her again, and about having more stuff to do together. I think Christina is one of the few actresses out there who is making brave choices—not just in the films she chooses, but in the work she’s doing. I think she’s terrific. She’s the real thing, and there’s a lot of fakes out there.” The fact that Ricci is sitting in very close proximity to him and there are still several more weeks of filming ahead of them shouldn’t lead you to doubt his sincerity. And he fiddles with his Zippo in a quite charming, “Aw, shucks” fashion as Ricci enthusiastically returns the compliment. “He’s amazing,” she says with feeling. “When we were doing rehearsals he would just slip into things. Like, he’d remember things from Ed Wood and he’d just start doing his Ed Wood thing. And we work together really well and he’s just really genuine. I mean, I first met him when I was nine years old and he’s always been so kind. He remembers my mother’s name every time he meets her, which makes her life worth living. He’s also an amazing actor and look at him—he’s beautiful.”

On paper this comes over as unadulterated gush, but in fact, it’s very sweet, and to his credit, Depp looks as if he’s about to suffer bashful meltdown. And if nothing else, it points to some highly convincing on-screen slushiness.

“Oh, I think that’s gonna be fine,” says Depp. “But certainly one of the first things that popped into my head was that, ‘My God, I’ve known her since she was nine years old and we’re going to be kissing and stuff!’ That was a little odd at first. But, you know, we’re both pretty calm, we’re not walking bags of neurosis—or if we are, we don’t bring our neuroses to work with us.” Oh no. That kind of thing, as we know, is reserved for snooty Mayfair restaurants and is traditionally accompanied by swinging planks of wood at intrusive paparazzi and yelling in an inexplicable Irish accent. Although Heaven forbid we should go into that here.

One of the delights of visiting a movie set, apart from wallowing in mud and gawping at extras in period costume reading The Daily Mail, is that while you’re waiting, you get shown all kinds of interesting behind-the-scenes stuff to fill the time. Today, we are taken to meet the horses. This turns out to be an unexpectedly terrifying experience, and not one we’d like to repeat any time soon. Banish from your thoughts any notion of patting velvety noses and administering sugar lumps to four-legged friends, and imagine instead standing three feet away from a gigantic fiery steed which is stamping its anvil-sized hooves and blowing great clouds of steam out of its gaping nostrils—at one point, it even rears up on its hind legs and whinnies like a steam train. This is the headless horseman’s horse, and frankly, he’s fucking welcome to it.

Standing somewhat forlornly beside this colossal, highly-strung beast is Ichabod’s ride. This is a dumpy, docile old mare, hilariously broad in the beam and short in the leg who looks as if her rearing up days are a dim and distant memory. Again, it’s perfect casting.

Back with the talent of the two-legged variety and Johnny Depp appears as wary of the equines as Empire. But apparently for entirely different reasons.

“We have a kind of edgy relationship,” says Depp guardedly, when informed of our harrowing ordeal. “One day she can be fine and the next she can be a little . . . peculiar.”

“He gives you hours of amusement,” chimes in Ricci. “Johnny loses it every time the horse farts.”

“Yeah,” he says seriously, “and the horse farts constantly. I take it as her statement about movies in general. She just doesn’t give a shit about what’s going on. She farts constantly and shits all over the set,” he smiles. “I like that horse very, very much . . .”

Via Johnny Depp Zone

© IFOD 2003 – 2023